Defending Leithart

Peter Leithart

“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”

— Peter Leithart

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This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.

Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.

I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.

What Sort of Writing?

We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:

As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.

Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.

The Sacramental Writer

Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.

Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.

So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.

More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write

Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.

Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:

I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.

Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”

I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.

Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.

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Image: Peter Leithart (source)

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43 comments

  1. Not quite in line my thoughts of recent days, but it would fit into the same category: a clinical tedium that is absent of joy is the falsification of the theologian. (As the argument goes, the Church didn’t begin in 1517. If we protestants reject all things that is “Catholic”, especially that which existed pre-1517, we deny ourselves access to the depth and creativity that goes with it).

  2. Would someone help me out by listing all the great Southern novelists, all of whom are supposedly Catholic? I am wondering if there is an unstated time line? Is this post-Faulkner? Who, besides FlanneryO’Connor, are these great Catholic Southern novelists?

    • Walker Percy, John William Corrington, Caroline Gordon, and Allen Tate. And it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Flannery O’Connor. Sure, there are writers like Lee Smith, one of my favorite Southern novelists today, who are Protestant in heritage, albeit minimally.

  3. The problem for me is that Leithart always does this kind of thing – he defines a problem so broadly and qualifies it so much that it’s just trivial or can’t be falsified. The lack of material data (IE, specific authors both Catholic and Protestant) supporting his point is telling. Any author I could cite would be excluded because he’s so narrowly defined his problem space.

    • But is the problem not broad? Is he not defining a prevalent mode of Protestantism for the last 100+ years, albeit not attractive to intellectuals like you and me and people who read our blogs? Is it really “trivial”? Hardly.

      So, let us narrow it explicitly. Who are the great novelists, architects, and painters within the evangelical movement — as defined by Mark Noll and George Marsden — and confessional Protestantism of the last two hundred years? We’re talking about a movement and culture that includes millions of people across several generations and, lately at least, with the cultural influence, luxury, capital, and means to produce art.

      • I’m using trivial in the more technical sense, not as in, unimportant. But my problem is more methodological. Sure, its broad – “Protestants can’t write” is as broad as you could get. But then he narrows/qualifies it so much that it’s nearly impossible to refute not because of lack of material data but because of his method. Sure, there’s no Protestant Chesterton, or Dostoevsky, or whoever. Currently, there’s no Catholic, Orthodox, or Unitarian equivalent, either. And, really, how is he defining “great”? Does Grisham count? He’s a Baptist – or is he excluded at the outset by Leitharts method? Rowling? (Church of Scotland, last I checked) Updike? Robert Louis Stevenson? (He left the faith, but was brought up strict Christian – or would Leithart exclude his upbringing from his ‘imagination formation)? See the problem? It’s not a thesis that’s subject to falsification – any example would either confirm his own thesis or wouldn’t be admitted as evidence. Lewis, Donne, Rembrandt, the names you mention? Nope, don’t count! And then add more qualifications, ad infinitum. This is a common Leithart trope (he’s said almost the same thing about theology/philosophy/” classical theism” /Greek philosophy). There may be more Catholic than Protestant ‘great writers’. But we will never know by following Leitharts method.

      • True, Lewis and Donne would be excluded, in part, because their ecclesial communion and culture preserved much of the sacramental realism that Leithart sees as vital to narrative writing. For Rowling and others with a nominal Reformed background, what is the influence of this background on their writing? The point of Leithart’s example, Flannery O’Connor, is not merely that she’s Catholic but that her Catholicism — whether nominal or vibrant — is indispensable in interpreting her work. Her faith was vibrant, of course, but without any shallow pietism, which she abhorred. On the nominal Catholic side, we could list Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Alfred Hitchcock among filmmakers — and they happen to be my three favorite directors.

        I cannot emphasize enough that Leithart is specifying a sacramental writing. So, obviously, Grisham — as a Baptist of some sort — is not likely to qualify! If someone wants to disagree that this is a good criteria for evaluating literature, then that’s fine. If someone wants to say that Rowling is on the same level as Tolkien, then that’s fine. If someone wants to say that The End of the Affair is nothing special, that’s fine (as much as I would be tempted to yell at him or her!). I expect disagreement, but I want to know why, and I want an alternate criteria. Leithart has in fact explained his literary prejudice, which is surely falsifiable.

        Once again, as I emphasized in my post, Leithart should have preserved the original title to this article — “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is indisputable, and a few exceptions prove the rule.

      • Kevin, Whitefozen, Cal-

        Crucial to this matter is the distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction, a distinction which wavers between substantive and utterly arbitrary depending on the critic you’re reading. It doesn’t reduce to a high brow/low brow divide, but that can help heuristically, I guess. They aren’t hard and fast, absolute distinctions- they frequently interpenetrate (http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a33599/genre-fiction-vs-literary-fiction/): Crime and Punishment uses the tropes of detective fiction but no one in their right mind would dismiss it as a supermarket book!); Tolkien was scorned earlier this century but is making progress towards being canonized; Rowling may just do the same in the near future. The Catcher in the Rye took some time but was elevated from popular to literary in a similar way. The point being that Leithart’s definition of “great” orbits the sun of literary fiction. So right off the bat, before we even turn to the subject of sacramental vision, Grisham is excluded because he writes popular legal fiction. And while that can be enjoyable, it doesn’t contribute to fresh, enlarged vision of the mystery of the world (or if it does, it’s a sovereign, sacramental hijacking of the author’s work!). Literary fiction employs the demotic to depict the vulgar without itself becoming vulgar (T.S. Eliot, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner et al.), but I don’t think I have to defend the assertion that low church evangelical fiction/paintings/films directly correlate with the vulgar. As an aside: most theologians I read are woefully ignorant of literature, so it’s about time we address this issue.

  4. This whole issue is an exercise in missing the point. The fact is that we end up scribbling names and whether or not they’re definitive or exceptional. We start arguing about backgrounds, whether so-and-so is lapsed, how impacted their imagination was etc etc. Everybody needs to take a deep breath, and slow down.

    My conjecture is that sacraments are not the issue. The issue is how well an author sees, and conveys, the “horizon” of their vision. In other words, it’s the ability to push, play, bend, and/or break boundaries in the world around us. It’s about how well one appreciates “mystery”, the spaces and corners of life that are all too familiar and all too unfamiliar.

    As some have pointed out, there are quite a few atheists, agnostics, pagans, etc. who write well. The reason they do so is that they can appreciate the spaces, both light and dark, both comforting and disconcerting.

    Unlike them, many evangelicals (and perhaps Protestants widely) feel all too comfortable with their knowledge, seeing everything awash in the light of the eye and reason. We know the plan, and we have an expectation to know how it will work out. When we see things this way, we end up with cliche and saccharine moral tales, melodramas, and deus-ex-machina providentialisms and appeals to some non-ironic fate.

    Yea, maybe “evangelicals” or “protestants” can’t write, but the solution is not necessarily a liturgical renewal. You criticize the charismatics as Zwinglian, but they are only in Zwinglian in what the majority of the Tradition has called “sacraments”. In fact, they may be just as sacramental in how they view worship, singing, life in general, always opened to “fresh” movements of the Spirit. They might be heretics, or psuedo-Pagan for doing so, but if (when) a cultured literature emerges, I’m not sure it will fall under Leithart’s ban.

    Why? Because life can be full of light and dark, the thin areas where reality becomes strange and scary. It’s being able to recognize these, and a dogmatic statement on sacraments will only make you a magician, in your tower with your spellbooks. But you have not become a visionary who can scratch the surface between worlds.

    For me, that’s what makes art (whether music, film, or writing) great. It’s why a non-conformist heterodox like George Macdonald became the fount for Chesterton and Lewis. It’s why the horror of HP Lovecraft is truly terrifying.

    So no, it’s not Protestants, it’s not about liturgy, sacraments or what have you. It’s about so much more. When the anxiety of getting everything right goes away, maybe we’ll be able to see the angels and demons that walk the streets right before our eyes.

    2 cents,
    cal

    • I think you’re spot on, Cal. What makes so many evangelicals bad writers, and bad artists, is the same thing that made doctrinaire Nazi and Soviet writers and artists so bad: a view of things unable to tolerate ambiguity, contingency, uncertainty, mystery; a view of things that requires all art to fit into the framework of a narrowly defined system. Where the imaginative landscape is flat and populated only with arranged features, and the borders are strictly enforced, the possibility of art dies before birth. Reality is too wild and free to be captured by writers operating within such constraints, within such boundaries.

    • Catholicism has a fundamentalist side that, at times, has been expressed in the attempt to control reading, and writers, out of narrow doctrinal and doctrinaire concerns: think of the lists of forbidden books issued from the Vatican.

    • I think Leithart’s discussion of O’Connor — which, seriously, people need to read — is easily the strongest part of the essay, regardless of how one thinks about the Zwingli/Marburg set-up. Your description of mystery in reality, especially as contrasted with “with cliche and saccharine moral tales, melodramas, and deus-ex-machina providentialisms and appeals to some non-ironic fate,” comes very close to what Leithart is saying. And, yes, you don’t have to be a Catholic to do this sort of quality writing, and the secular writer is much more likely to do so than the propositional-driven, conversion-driven evangelical, which is (once again) the real target in Leithart’s essay.

      That’s an interesting point, Cal, about charismatics, and you may very well be right.

      • Yea, I like the O’Connor bit. But still, I do not think she was a good writer because she was Roman Catholic, but because, especially in an Evangelical dominated South, her sacramentality helped open her eyes to the fringes of life. It’s for that reason that social minorities can craft some really stirring things.

        As Robert says, it’s the same reason Nazis and Soviets produced little art. What art that was produced had to recycle the initial powerful themes that these groups made when they were confused, weak, and exploring. But by the time of their ascendancy, they were rote, cliche, and plastic.

        I know Leithart and my comment are touching the same points, but I think he reads the data all the wrong ways. Liturgy renewal won’t make Protestants better artists. His “gleeful fit of reductionism” is childish.

      • Leithart comes close to indicating as much — that it’s not the sacramentology per se but the way it opens one’s vision to reality in its own intrinsic value (“grotesque” included). So, I think that you and Leithart could sit-down and have an open conversation and find yourselves in more agreement than otherwise apparent. Maybe I’m wrong — so be it. I do like what you’re saying, Cal. But I think it’s rather too strong and uncharitable to say that his reductionism is “childish.” That is hardly the case.

    • The point might not reduce to high sacramentalism vs. memorialism, but as Leithart contends, right-seeing, and I think the correlation between the two is real. Ruskin, a lapsed evangelical, declared, “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion- all in one,” and I think that’s the point of contact (!) for discussing the excellence of non-Christian art.

      • Ian:

        Sure, but what is the aim of the article? What is the tangible goal that his criticism implies? Leithart, and most of the FV movement, has been accused of being closet Anglicans or closet Roman-Catholics. This is narrow-minded Reformed thinking at its worst. But the point is that Leithart desires a sacramental renewal and he, along with James Jordan, see a proper and biblical liturgy as the means for renewing culture (it’s in the mission statement at his Theopolis Institute!)

        It doesn’t matter if Leithart and I agree that Evangelicals are terrible artists. His solutions are not touching on either the source of the problem or a real, functioning solution. That is why, for good or ill, one must pay attention to the Charismatic movements in the Global South, and also the decline and reformulations of Christianity in the West.

      • Cal:
        I concede I’ve latched onto a plank of Leithart’s argument in a way that bypasses his explicit thesis- must’ve been possessed momentarily by Bultmann. If we treat his initial missives as a springboard, though, do liturgy and right-seeing not coinhere? Doesn’t liturgy (I won’t bother repeating party line mantras like “THE liturgy,” seeing as there are as many ancient liturgies as there are local contexts) cultivate right-seeing in disciples in addition to an urge to fittingly participate in the mystery? I know that in the main charismatic churches expand believers’ vision of the world and its possibilities, but do they impel creative responses the way liturgical forms at least appear to? That’s a sticking point for me.

      • Ian:

        I think if liturgy is to mean something, it has to encompass more than a ritual aspect that has been maintained to a near antiquarian pitch despite the changes of the modern world. Charismatics at least can engage in a world where the Devil could be found driving a car.

        So yes, I think to explore creative and fresh ‘thin areas’ one has to see the world a particular way. Even Kafka, in the bleak drab of the turn-of-the-century pulled at the seems. Charismatics can do so too, and create wonderful art.

        And Bultmann, you cheeky bastard you 😉

      • Cal:
        Absolutely, on liturgy- it’s always adapted over the centuries and needs to continue to do so. I’m suspicious of renewal-types who simply want to repristinate past forms wholesale and assert it’ll be precisely the solution we need. But all the same, habitual forms shape and instantiate our being-in-the-world. I don’t think we have any major disagreement there. More liturgy advocates need to emphasize teaching that reinforces the liturgy’s words and moves instead of pretending it accomplishes its goals ex opere operato. But my specific point in bringing up charismatics is to illustrate how expansive sight doesn’t necessarily lead to worthy creative action, as I’m unfamiliar with any great charismatic novelists. Where is the fault line between the two here?

        But if all that comes out of this discussion is that I was called a cheeky bastard for the first time, then it was all worth it 😎

      • I know that in the main charismatic churches expand believers’ vision of the world and its possibilities, but do they impel creative responses the way liturgical forms at least appear to? That’s a sticking point for me.

        Exactly, Ian, and that is very much where I am coming from. I also like Cal’s insights on the charismatic realism in regard to the supernatural, namely demonic, which is a far more “radical” insight than any so-called “radical Protestantism” among postgraduates.

      • Side note: one of the reasons i enjoy Douglas Kelly’s systematic theology is the way he draws on literature to illustrate or substantiate principles he’s discussing in a refreshingly un-boneheaded way.

      • Speaking of realism of one sort or another, I find it interesting Luther was a nominalist. Thoughts?

      • Ian, I agree that Douglas Kelly’s ST — though I’ve only read the first volume, not the second volume — is remarkably humble and generous, and I recommended it at some point on this blog, years ago. Unfortunately, Kelly’s ST is not focused enough or disciplined enough to garner much attention and influence within the “guild” of academic theology.

        On Luther’s nominalism vs. realism, I do not have any firm position. I tend to agree with those who argue for nominalism as a decisive influence, but I leave it to the experts to debate.

      • And that’s why I hastily make my retraction, as Obermann apparently thinks Luther ditched the nominalism circa 1509, possibly. Wouldn’t mind Adam weighing in on that one.

  5. And yes, Leithart, as Balthasar in the post before, loves to engage in typology. As fascinating and rhetorically powerful as it can be, unless you do it right, you come off like a windbag. So I can understand Whitefrozen’s tiredness with Leithart’s invention of over the top tropes. Though I am oh so grateful for it, his typological reasoning lacks a kind of humility and caution.

    To say a cliche proverb: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    • Final comment: The Eastern (and New Testament) description of “mysteries” has continued to grow on me, and this case is another example. The need to categorize and type in a way the Apostles never did (i.e. are there 2 sacraments? 3? 7? What are they? Are there different kinds (necessary vs. unnecessary)?)

      I can understand how “sacraments” have/can become a form of magic or alchemy, where the eucharistic host was squirreled away as a charm for good luck, good fortune, romance, or to ward off evil (c.f. Charles Taylor & “white magic”). The cry to return to the “sacramental tapestry” (ala Boersma) is a naive vision of what that time really was.

      Plus, sacrament, vis. the latin origins, connotes some contractual arrangement where’s its clear what is occurring. I’m not saying don’t use it or that these notions are completely wrong (I use to find the vision of the eucharist as sacramentum, my oath to my commander, as quite stirring). Rather, the word ‘mystery’ better explains the kind of event where Moses meets a burning bush, Elijah sees an axe-head float, Hosea marries an unfaithful prostitute, Jeremiah eats feces, and Nathan tells a story about a ewe lamb. It’s a weird meeting ground where different currents of reality meet.

  6. With the distinction between Protestants and evangelicals in place, I’m with Kevin on Leithart. Protestants can write, but even then it should be noted that, with some notable exceptions, the overwhelming majority are Anglicans whose faith is framed sacramentally.

    And not just post-Oxford Movement Anglicans. Just think of the origin and rise of the English novel in the 18th century: it was a thoroughly Anglican explosion — Defoe, Swift (clergyman), Richardson, Fielding, Sterne (clergyman), Burney, et.al.; and then on into the 19th century — Austen, Thackery, Dickens, Eliot … And in 19th century American letters, while the religious milieu was not Anglican, it was Calvinist, not Zwinglian, and therefore immensely more sacramental. And even when writers were wrestling with, or indeed reacting against, their Anglican or Calvinist faith-heritages, their imaginations were imbued with them.

    Empirically, it is incontestable that evangelicals can’t write (or compose or paint, for that matter), and Leithart’s thesis about “the sacramental writer”, if not demonstrable in the way some commentators would like (methinks they protest too much), has a prima facie plausibility and explanatory power about it which I find compelling. I also think that the embarrassing artistic thinness of evangelicalism out to make its advocates pause and reflect: surely there is something seriously wrong theologically (doctrine of creation? Christology? ecclesiology? eschatology?) if my church’s main contribution to contemporary aesthetics is the worship song.

  7. Why are good Protestant writers exceptions to the rule but good Roman Catholic writers are, in part, good writers because they are Roman Catholic? Is it a numbers game?

    • That’s a very good question, Andrew. Yes, it is a numbers game, in part, and I don’t deny that. When I criticize American evangelical “art” from the past two hundred years, I am criticizing on the basis of representation and numbers. The simple fact is that there are very few, if any, notable artists in American evangelicalism of the past two hundred years, despite the fact that evangelicalism has enjoyed prosperity, luxury, affluence, and therefore the means to produce great art.

      American evangelicals, for the most part and especially in the South and Midwest, have not been huddling together in catacombs. They have been at the center of cultural privilege, even though that is presently waning at a precipitous rate. The wealthiest churches in Charlotte, where I live, are the evangelical megachurches that have multi-million dollar theater-style or arena-style churches with zero aesthetic merit, according to both the Western and the Eastern canons of aesthetics as communicating transcendence.

      The remarkable thing about the Southern Catholic novelists, mentioned in a comment above, is that they were such a small percentage of the Southern population and yet they wielded a wildly disproportionate influence on Southern literature. There is perhaps a similar disproportion in English Catholic literature of the same period (20th c.) because of Tolkien, Waugh, Knox, Greene, Chesterton, et al.

      • I find the exceptions interesting because, if Leithart is right, there can be none. The Protestant who writes well, does so despite their Protestantism. The exceptions are deviant Protestants.

        According to Leithart it is not the case that Protestants could write well but don’t. Rather, Protestants can’t write and we should blame it on Marburg.

        He concedes reductionism at the beginning, but for the reductionist account to work it must be the case that a ‘high’ sacramental theology is a necessary condition of writing well. Or, at the very least, Zwinglian sacramental theology means one can’t write well.

        And, lo and behold, he thinks that if modern Protestants are to write well then they must ditch Zwingli and retrieve sacramental resources from within the Reformed tradition.

        So when we think of exceptions, the number is not to the point. If there is even one exception; that is, if there is even one honest to goodness Protestant (as Leithart is using the term) that writes well (or has done), then the argument fails.

        The same would hold for whether or not (American) Evangelicals can or can’t write.

        (There are a number of weaker claims that could be made on the relationship between sacramental theology and writing. In the main Leithart seems to be making the stronger claims. There are ambiguities in the pieces, conceding Woiwode and Robinson, ‘impact of ideas over centuries’ etc.)

      • I find the exceptions interesting because, if Leithart is right, there can be none.

        Leithart is not that simplistic. He knows that influences are varied and often hard to detect and interpret. As you note at the end, he does recognize some exceptions to his thesis. That is to be expected. Even somebody who grew-up in a cold, anti-aesthetic fundamentalist household is still capable of finding and expressing his or her imagination in profound ways, especially given other influences and gifts. But, they will be rare and the exceptions — that’s the point.

        Once again, as I have been stressing, it is unfortunate that Leithart puts “Protestant” in the FT title to this essay, because Leithart is very happy to acknowledge (as he has also done in other essays) that Protestantism is not intrinsically antithetical to aesthetics and even the richness of a Flannery O’Connor. He is targeting a particular strand of Protestantism, and it is a rather dominant strand since the mid-1800’s. So, yes, there are plenty of exceptions if we are considering Protestantism as a whole, but there are remarkably few exceptions — hardly any at all — if we consider the revivalist and evangelical strand of Protestantism that has been so influential for the past two centuries. This is especially true for the visual arts, which affects literature as well.

  8. Some interesting discussion here, and I generally agree with your critique. I wonder though, are we overlooking black Protestantism? After all, almost every genre of American music has roots in African-American Gospel music. Unfortunately I don’t know much about the black literary tradition though.

    • I contemplated bringing music into this discussion, which complicates things immensely. I am obviously very partial toward the Southern and especially black-infused Southern musical expressions that have generated blues, jazz, country, rock, and r&b — basically, 20th century innovative music as a whole came from one place: Dixie and the evangelical Protestant culture (black and white) that is the bedrock of Dixie.

  9. Anybody read Calvin Miller? I think his Singer Trilogy deserves larger recognition. When I think of Evangelical or Protestantism, he certainty comes to mind. My Greek professor, a Southern Baptist preacher, suggested him to me, and as someone who teaches Literature (specifically Milton), I came away impressed.

    • I have considered reading Miller’s Singer Trilogy, but I have not heard much about it. I have his devotional-type book, ‘The Book of Jesus’, which is very good in terms of its selections.

  10. I agree with your point about the fundamentalist. But I don’t think that it provides an adequate parallel to what Leithart is claiming, which is there is a necessary relationship between sacramental theology and good (or bad) writing. How this works out in history is, yes, a complicated issue.

    That evangelicals in America have not produced great literature is, I think, a defensible claim. And why that should be the case is an interesting question. But I think Leithart’s explanation is severely lacking.

    Of course, Leithart beating the sacramental drum is nothing new. I presume his article is another argument for ‘sacramentalism’.

    But I don’t see that it works, precisely because I can have good writing without it as well as with. So if I want to account for the rarity of good writing in modern Protestantism/Evangelicalism I would look elsewhere.

  11. Not a writer but indicative of what’s been said here. – bono ( and and larry and the edge) all started off as evangelicals but left and moved to Anglicanism when there pastors challenged the validity of there music.

  12. *their

    also germane is the following factoid. The island of Ireland has produced many a great protestant author. e.g. Goldsmith, Stoker, Swift, Beckett, Wilde, Synge, CSLewis, Shaw, Yeats, and some artists too e.g. Orpen and Jack Yeats. To a man everyone of them was brought up Anglican. Protestantism in Ireland is fairly evenly balanced between Anglicans and others groups but not a single Presbyterian (which in Ireland tended to the evangelical expression -still does) or independent can be found in the list above.

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